In the realm of relationships between humans and animals, there are few as rewarding or profound as that between man and dog. It's difficult to describe to those who've never had a pet, but a dog will give its loyalty and love wholly and without question. They see us at our best and worst, often remaining by our sides through moves, break-ups, marriages, deaths and more — ever faithful, ever loving. Once a dog takes root in your life, that presence is one that benefits both and when it ends, that void can be as deep as losing a friend or family member, simply because, they are your friend and family. But unfortunately, America's relationship with canines is a troubled one, with overfilled shelters, puppy mills and abuse still rampant, leading to something of a crisis with millions of dogs put down each year. "One Nation Under Dog: Stories Of Fear, Loss & Betrayal" presents a triptych of stories, looking at these issues from various angles and coming to the conclusion that we need to do more to the animals that give us so much.
The opening section, "Fear," begins the doc on a rather curoius note. Coming off more like a "20/20" segment, we're not sure how this piece exactly fits in with what follows, except to show that one can be overly devoted to their pets to the point of being ignorant of the danger they may pose. As we tend to often forget, dogs are animals, and will revert to their instincts in unfamiliar situations or those in which they feel they are afraid of threatened, leading to bites…or worse. Enter Dr. Robert Taffet. The proud owner of a family of Rhodesian Ridgebacks, he earned the enmity of his neighbors in suburban New Jersey following a string of biting incidents — were his dogs vicious or were these just random, unlucky occurences? The truth lay somewhere in the middle, but Taffet refused to give up his dogs, spending money on expensive lawyers to fight the mounting lawsuits he faced, until one particulary harrowing event wakes him up to the reality of the situation, and with a heavy heart, he puts down one of his four beloved Rhodesians.
The entire story is a bit sensationalist — we're not even sure "Fear" is accurate title for the segment, perhaps "Devotion" might be more fitting — but in its way, it does get the point across of how strong those bonds of attachment can be. And leading into "Loss," it's not hard to understand how far that well of sorrow goes when that connection is broken. This section of the film focuses on just what the title implies, moving from a support group at the San Francisco SPCA, a burial at a pet cemetary and then in an obvious play at a lighter moment, the story of a wealthy, elderly couple who successfully clone their departed dog. The latter feels a bit too goofy and out of place within the context of the rest of the film, but perhaps it's needed because "Betrayal" is the wake-up call 'One Nation Under Dog' builds to, giving an unflinching look at just how much more we need to do as a nation in protecting and caring for our dogs.
The centerpiece of this section — if you can even call it that — is an absolutely stomach churning, unedited, three minute video that shows dogs at a shelter being placed in a metal bin and gassed to death. And just when you think that's enough, more dogs are placed inside — live ones on top of the dead ones — the lid closed, and more gas pumped in. Hearing the dogs inside before they're about to die will haunt your memory, but it's arguably more sickening that a few moments later, a garbage truck arrives and the bin is casually forklifted, with the bodies unceremoniously dumped in the back. Bob Barker didn't insist every weekday on "The Price Is Right" to spay and neuter your pets without good reason — there is an overpopulation problem that is exacerbated by an unwillingness to address it with any sense of responsibility.
Another difficult to watch sequence follows an animal rescue group as they raid a puppy mill, which one of the volunteers describes as one of the worst they've ever seen. Multiple wood crates and cages stood wrapped in plastic — essentially suffocating the dogs — as they lived crammed in together with each other so for long that some had to be cut out. Dead bodies were left inside to rot, with some dogs using them for warmth, and it wouldn't be hard to argue that some were already beyond rescue or facing serious health issues that the would deal with for the rest of their lives. And yet, pet stores are the biggest customers of puppy mill dogs and animal cruelty laws do little to punish or dissuade those from continuing the practice (and it's this latter subject that is perhaps the biggest missing topic of the documentary). So where do many of these dogs wind up? In a shelter, where for many, their lives will come to end living on a concrete floor, behind a gate, under flourescent lights.
But thankfully, there are heroes out there making a difference. Best illustrating how little it takes rehabilitate a shelter dog, and how much all they want is basic love, care and attention, is John Gagnon of New England PAWS. In one of the film's most touching moments, we see him lasso a gorgeous dog in a shelter — who is labelled as a "biter" and stands aggressively snarling any time her cage is opened — and lead her outside, into a field. With patience and a strong, but calm attitude he begins talking and petting the dog, whose tail initially goes flying between her legs in fear….but within moments of continued affection, the dog flops to her side, licking his hand, completely at ease. She's a totally different dog, and one that John has no problem finding a home for after just a month of training.
There's also Julie Adams, who on her immense farm property, cares for over 100 stray or abandoned dogs. As she notes, many of them that come her way have never been cared for, fed, or even given a kind touch, and she allows them to flourish. She also works to find homes for the ones who show the most promise. An interesting subtext to both John and Julie's stories are their own personal backgrounds that undoubtedly shaped them into the people they are now. For John, teenage rage issues he believes allows him to recognize the problems a dog might have rooted in their psyche, allowing him the opportunity to identify and fix it. Meanwhile Julie came from an era where dogs simply weren't considered with the same compassion, and her tales of loss — which still sting to this day — are the driving force behind her commitment now.
"He wasn't my child, he wasn't my parent, he wasn't my partner — he was my dog. We just don't have words for that," a young woman shares in the film. "One Nation Under Dog" does an admirable job of capturing that indescribable spirit that is forged between our dogs and ourselves. By turns heartbreaking and moving, the film at times made this writer want to head down to the local shelter, scoop up all the dogs and go live in the country. What they give and how they enrich our lives is immeasurable, and 'One Nation Under Dog' simply asks that we give back to them, as much as they have given us. [B]
"One Nation Under Dog: Stories Of Fear, Loss & Betrayal" airs on HBO tonight at 9 PM.